Ashi Sabaki: Combat Footwork of Jujutsu

by William Durbin, Soke of Kiyojute Ryu

Over the years a lot has been written about the Chinese and Okinawan methods of stance training, and yet little has been written about stance training in the Japanese art of Jujutsu. Primarily this is because the Japanese attitude is one of 'just stand'. That is, they believe that the stance of combat should be one that is very natural. The more a person worries about how they are standing the less likely their attention will be directed in their defense.

          While less is written in regard to the combat footwork of Japanese martial arts, it is taught from teacher to student, with a great emphasis on balance and focus. While each style of Japanese martial arts has certain differences and each Ryu has their own methods, there are six stances, which are common in nearly all Japanese martial arts, and in truth are found in nearly all combat systems in the Orient. This includes the weapon systems as well as the empty hand systems. The reason this is so, is that empty hand training formed the foundation of martial arts training in the Buddhist temples in Japan, and elsewhere. And when the Samurai began training under the monks’ tutelage, both weapon skills and empty hand training were developed simultaneously. However, it should be noted that for the Samurai, the empty hand training was secondary to weaponry, simply because battlefield combat was based on weapon use.

Six Stances

          The six stances are actually based on two stances, with the other four being simply variations of the two. The six stances are; Shizentai, Hidari Shizen Dachi, Migi Shizen Dachi, Jigotai, Hidari Jigo Dachi, and Migi Jigo Dachi. For the Japanese martial artist, the main stance is Shizen, which means natural. The feet in all three variations are shoulder width apart with the weight distribution generally 50-50. The usual beginning position is Hidari Shizen Dachi, the left natural stance. Migi Shizen Dachi, of course, is the right natural stance.

          In regard to movement, the concept is one of natural walking, shuffling, and pivoting. Natural walking is known as Ayumi ashi, and are simply the feet passing each other. The balance is smooth, with a flow from one foot to the other, while the feet glide close to the ground. The Japanese idea is that, since it is very likely that you will be attacked unexpectedly, you should be able to defend yourself from the most natural and likely position that you will be in, hence the natural stance and walking.

          Once involved in a confrontation, it is important to move in the most effective and safe manner possible. In shuffling your feet you are less likely to be caught in a position where your feet are crossed, causing a lack of balance, or that your weight is on one leg too long. The shuffle is known as, Tsugi ashi, or literally following feet. This is considered the superior footwork for movement in combat.

          The final method of movement, and some say the most important, is Tenkan ashi, or the pivoting foot. This is the most used method of Aikido, and of course was derived from its Jujutsu roots. In this concept, the front or rear foot moves in a circle, which the body follows by pivoting on the ball of the other foot. This method is used to dodge attacks, pivot into throws, or lead a person with a joint lock.

Moving from the Hips

          In all three methods of movement, the practitioner moves from the hips. Untrained people tend to move from their shoulders, leaning into a walk, so that they are literally falling onto their feet. But a trained Jujutsuka moves from the hips so that the weight glides forward, shifting to each foot naturally. This is not only good for self defense, but also excellent for the health and well being of the feet and legs.

          Once the three methods of movement are mastered, then the Jujutsuka can use the Shikaku Ashi Sabaki, square foot movement, method to practice proper application of the movements to combat. It is said that this training concept can be traced back to the Shaolin temple in China, and was brought to Japan in the twelfth century. The exercise can be done with both the Shizentai or Jigotai, and their variations, and is an excellent way to develop the Tenkan.


          Before continuing with an explanation of Shikaku Ashi Sabaki, it is expedient to explain Jigotai and the main misunderstanding regarding its use. Jigotai literally means self defense body, and has been taken by many to mean an actual self defense position they should assume in a real confrontation or competition. However, the Jigo in this sense is in reference to an actual defense of the body at the moment the movement is used. In explanation, picture standing in a natural stance, and suddenly someone moves in to throw you. If at that very moment you spread your feet and lower your weight, you will change the leverage of the situation, so that you cannot be thrown. Obviously, if you were being seriously attacked, and simply stayed in that position, the attacker could strike you in the groin, or do some other type of damage, because of the lack of mobility offered in that position. Let us say, however, that instead of trying to hold that position, as soon as, the throw has been foiled, you flow out of that stance into a position to execute your own throw, or other defensive technique. Now we are talking effective self defense and the proper use of Jigotai. It is a transitory position, which should be taken for the split second it takes to block a throwing attempt, or any other type of defensive action, and then flowed out of in the process of executing the next move.

Shikaku Ashi Sabaki

          And this is where Shikaku Ashi Sabaki comes into play. Moving from one position to another is very important. A martial artist needs to be able to do so smoothly and efficiently. By picturing yourself standing on a square, with you left foot on the left rear corner, and your right foot on the right rear corner, you can work your movement by pivoting your right foot to the left front corner, then the left foot to the right front corner, then the right foot to the right rear corner, and finally the left foot to the left back corner, you now end in the position you began. This pattern gives you two forward pivots and two backward pivots. These are the same pivots, with some variation in distance between feet to accommodate actual combat conditions, that you would use to execute most hip throws and many counter joint techniques.

          The pattern should be practiced using both Shizentai and Jigotai. It should also be used using Hidari Shizen Dachi and Migi Shizen Dachi, since this is the more realistic position you would probably find yourself in, in actual combat. In order to practice the Hidari and Migi variations of the Jigotai, all you need to do is look at a forty five degree angle and raise the hands in that direction and you have 'taken' those stances.

          Once you have mastered the ability to move smoothly and with balance in the Shikaku Ashi Sabaki pattern, then when you are practicing it is important to see how the throws and joint locks can use that footwork to be more efficient. However one of the main points in Japanese thought is simply, don't think too much. Analyze how the foot work can improve your performance, see the connection between the training form and the reality of technical application, but do not become obsessed with trying to make the training movements perfectly match your moves in actual throwing or joint locking.

          Many techniques require that the feet be used from different distances apart. One of the best examples is Taiotoshi, the body drop. In this throw, while you may start out with your feet should width apart, such as in a defense position, when the throw is actually executed, the feet are usually double shoulder width apart, and then according to stylistic differences, the opponent is either thrown over the calf, knee, or thigh. Thus the actual movements do not follow the perfect square used in training.

Just Stand

          And this brings us back to the original Japanese way of thinking, 'just stand'. It is important that a martial artist develop good movement. And good movement only comes from knowing how to stand well. Then the stances must be connected so that an overall balanced and smooth transition of body and weight is the result. Training in the Shizentai and Jigotai, and moving through the Shikaku Ashi Sabaki pattern all contribute to these skills and abilities. However when it comes time to apply actual techniques it is important to transcend thought and simply 'do' the moves. This means that there must be a great deal of repetition of movement so that no thought is needed to move correctly. When this is so, and when the techniques themselves have been practiced sufficiently, then in competition and actual self defense, the stances and movements will be there for you and you will move correctly in your own defense and achieve success.

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